It’s been a while. Such a long while. This is what has happened.
1. Rombald Stride
This is a well-known and beloved race in my part of Yorkshire. It takes its name from a) Rombald Moor near Ilkley and b) because it started as a long distance walk. Now it’s mixed, so that walkers and runners set off together – though some walkers set off earlier – and all along the 22 mile route, you pass walkers. I said hello to all of them. Some of them said hello back. Anyway. I was nervous. I had no idea how I would run 22 miles. And I was scared of getting lost. You’ll be fine, said FRB, who was also doing the race. At your pace, there will be people around you. You’re unlikely to be on your own until Baildon moor. This didn’t give me much confidence though. I’m terrible at orientation and navigation. I did as he suggested and photocopied my OS map, then drew the route on it.
The official directions from the organisers are hilariously brief and enigmatic. They say things like “at Baildon Moor, turn left for five miles”. So FRB did me some very detailed ones. I packed those and the map in a transparent folder. I got my fell kit ready: waterproof trousers and jacket, with taped seams. Hat. Gloves. Spare gloves. Spare socks. Gels. Dried fruit. Chocolate. Rombald is famous for its wonderful refreshment stops along the way. I was tempted into doing it in the first place by someone saying, “You get to run along Ilkely moor munching a pork pie and drinking a cup of tea. What’s better than that?” It sounded great, even if I can’t drink while running and I’m vegetarian. But I knew there would be hot and cold drinks, and cake.
The race start was from Guiseley. Registration was in a local school, where I tried to calm my nerves by looking at the wall displays. This pleased me a lot:
But it didn’t calm my nerves. I just swallowed them and headed out of the door when everyone else started walking through it. A mixture of runners and walkers – shoes and boots – crossed the road near the McDonalds and headed down a ginnel – though it may have been a snicket – to gather in a huddle, mass and gathering. I remember that a young woman, neither runner nor walker, was trying to walk in the other direction. She can’t have made much progress against a few hundred runners in a narrow ginnel, because someone shouted, “let her through, she’s late for work!” and with laughter, we made a space, and she made it. She looked a bit befuddled.
I chat to people at the start, and it was a treat to chat to walkers for a change, although the few that I did talk to were all of the same mind: You’re RUNNING this? You’re MAD. And then, we were off. The weather was clear, the visibility was good. I began with no hat, and never needed one. The gloves came off quite soon. I’d listened to FRB and put on capris and knee compression socks, rather than my usual race gear of shorts and socks (and of course was niggled when he turned out to be wearing shorts). To such stupid inconsequential things do minds that are running turn, because they are trying not to think of things like : I’VE RUN HALF A MILE AND THERE ARE TWENTY-ONE MORE TO GO.
Or, I HAVEN’T RUN BEYOND 15 MILES AND I HAVEN’T TRAINED AND OH GOD HOW AM I GOING TO KEEP UP AND WILL I BE LAST AND WHAT IF I GET LOST
We left Guiseley and ran through Esholt and up to Baildon Moor, and there were always people around me, and I didn’t get lost. Up and up to a trig point, then the Twelve Apostles, then miles of flags across the moor. It was beautiful.
There were regular stalls with drinks, or drinks and cake, staffed by lovely volunteers. I took a fig roll at one of them. “A fig roll?” said the young woman serving them. “Not a Jaffa Cake??? You’re mad!” The first drinks were cold, but after that there was tea, although I took none. From Baildon to Ilkley, past the Sunday walkers who were tiptoeing on the icy footpaths and looked at us running on them with amazement and awe (or bafflement and pity). By now the rest of the field had thinned out. I was desperate for the toilet but an exposed moor doesn’t offer much shelter, and I wasn’t desperate enough to squat publicly, though that would probably come. I walked some of the climbs, but mostly I kept moving, through black bog and heather and ice and flags and moor and paths. Then we dropped down into Burley, to the best equipped food stall of all. “We’ve got pork chops!” they said. And, when I said I was vegetarian, “There’s nut-roast in the van!” If only I could eat while running, I’d have had some. But I had flapjack and cake. And probably another fig-roll.
Burley to Menston would be urban and peri-urban. But I’d recced this part and actually remembered it, except for one moment in a farmer’s field in Burley where suddenly nothing looked familiar. I waited for runners to appear over the near horizon, and asked them the way, and they told me in detail and with kindness so off I ran. My legs were OK, though my socks were rubbing, but I’d been putting off changing them for miles. I sat down in a ginnel in Menston though to sort them out, and every runner asked if I needed help. Runners are kind people.
Through Menston, through fields, over stile after stile. Some beautiful, lovely, delightful person had rigged up this licorice allsorts staging post, and I will be forever thankful.
Then there was a dash long dash down, down and down to the bottom of the Chevin. And I was running down, and down, and I knew that I would soon be going up, and up. I knew the Chevin. I know it is STEEP. I’ve walked it and run through it, and I’d recced it with FRB. I’d been dreading the climb, but actually I enjoyed the walk. It was hard, and it was steep, but I chatted to another runner on the way and it began to feel like a nice 20 minutes of not running. And then, to the top, and I knew there were less than two miles left. I looked at my watch and it was about 20 past 4. I thought, I’m going to do this in less than 4 hours 30, dammit, and I belted down into Guiseley, down residential streets, through the centre, over the roundabout, back to the school, into the back entrance, where I stupidly sat down on a chair for two minutes before going in to report back. I ran nearly 22 miles in 4 hours 30 minutes, and they gave me a key-ring.
Ten days later, I flew to Haiti. I was going to report on cholera, and I was going to be based in Port au Prince. I’d organised a guesthouse, a driver and translator, and set up all my meetings. But what I hadn’t managed to organise was a running guide. I try to connect with local runners wherever I go, but Haiti defeated me. It was so hot. The streets were bad and dreadful, as was the traffic. And I never saw any runners, ever. I didn’t even see this guy. I’d been told by my hosts that it wasn’t safe to walk on the streets, and certainly not at night, so I was over-cautious. By the end of my ten days, I’d happily have rewound and gone running, even at 5am. That would have been easy, what with my jetlag and the loud dogs and cockrels that blasted out their morning crows and barks right outside my window. I eventually made contact with Run Haiti, a new organisation that is trying to get Haitians to run. The director had not only read The Big Necessity, but had also run a cholera treatment clinic. Even so, we couldn’t manage to meet. So no running in Haiti, and instead I did endless 7 minute workouts in my bedroom. I had a fascinating time and met wonderful people.
By the end of ten days, my press-ups were pretty good, I never wanted to see another fried plantain again and I dreamed of green salad.
3. High Cup Nick
I got back from Haiti on Friday morning. I’d had nearly 18 hours of travel, no sleep on the overnight plane from JFK, and stayed awake all day. I slept like the dead on Friday night, then got up on Saturday morning to be driven to Cumbria to run up this:
Yes, at this point I did question my sanity. High Cup Nick is known as one of the iconic fell races. It’s small (the race, not the fell), and based in the lovely village of Dufton.
This was my fourth fell race and I wasn’t getting any less nervous. I did the usual race preparation: Go to the toilet. Get my number. Pin my number. Change into my fell-shoes and compression socks. Strip off all layers. Make sure I had full kit (FRA rules: full waterproofs with taped seams, map, compass, whistle). Go to the toilet again. And again. And again.
We gathered on the village green, and off we went. A steady incline for the first mile or so, and after that I can’t remember much until we got to the valley bottom – black bogs – leading up to the climb up High Cup Nick. I remember passing a woman and telling her I was jet-lagged and she said, “you’re mad!” It seems to be a theme. Then, the climb. It was like the ages of man backwards: upright first, then to a crawl as we got near the top, where the waterfall was spraying uphill. Really. The clag had come down and the temperature dropped, so I put on my waterproof. By the top, I was trying not to look down, as the footholds weren’t huge and my head for heights is not great. But staring straight ahead meant staring at the backside of a man wearing rather short shorts. So the safest thing to do was watch my feet and not look beyond my next handhold. I did stop at one point to gawp though. And my goodness, it was stunning. A silver river snaking through the valley for so far, it disappeared into the horizon. I always try to stop and gawp, though I don’t think I’ll ever do what a runner near me was doing, which was climbing with two feet and one hand, because the other one was holding his phone, to video his ascent.
At the top, I ran with Jenny of Pudsey Pacers. There was a nice ridge run for a mile or so, then a pelt down a farmyard track. I’d knocked my watch putting my waterproof on, so I had no idea how much distance was left. Running at 7 minute mile pace down the track was a bit reckless, in retrospect, as there were a couple of miles to go. But it was fun. So on, and on, until we got to a house, and a yard, and then there was the blessed village green, and a village hall full of delightful women dispensing hot soup and bread. By heck, I love fell-racing. So I did some more.
4.Brussels & Pendle
But first, I went to Brussels, for a shipping conference. It was fly-by-night, and I meant to go running, but instead worked on my speech. Back home, and a ten mile run with FRB on the streets of north Leeds. He asked me what pace I wanted to do but I’ve discarded my plan so thoroughly I no longer knew, so I settled on no slower than 9.30 and no faster than 8.30. We did the ten miles at 8.45, and it felt fast, and I was exhausted. The next day my calves were extremely sore, so I foam rollered and ibuprofen-gelled, and the following day got back in a car to drive to Barley to run up and around Pendle Hill. I’d watched FRB do the Tour of Pendle, a 17 mile fell race, last year, and promised I would do it too. This was the warm-up. The Stan Bradshaw Pendle Round, a 9 mile run with nearly 2,000 feet of ascent. It was beautiful, and hard. I was limping before I started, and when I did start running, I realised how tired I was. I came the farthest back I’ve ever come in a race, 165th out of 176. I spent a lot of it looking round making sure I wasn’t last, and seeing that there were only about a dozen runners behind me. I wasn’t last, and I got round, and I’m proud of that though a wee bit mortified about how slow I was. But some days there’s just nothing in the tank, and this was one of them. I thought I might DNF (Did Not Finish) but I didn’t, and so well done me.
And on Sunday, I rested.